The aliens have landed...

The elusive nightjar

The elusive nightjar

An evening adventure to the Mendip Hills started with a pint at the Castle of Comfort pub. It had been sweltering all day at Walls Farm and just as I was leaving to pick up Stephen, I thought it might be prudent to throw into the back of the car my fleece. Sitting outside the pub it was extremely chilly, and I was jolly glad I had the foresight to bring my jacket. Once on the top of the Mendips at any time of year the temperature drops dramatically from the valley below. Tonight was clear, bright, and not a breath of wind – a night perfect for a nightjar hunt.

I have been birdwatching for longer than I care to remember, and as yet had never seen a nightjar in Britain. I had been fortunate enough to see varieties of their cousins in different spots around Africa; in Mozambique and Tanzania. So I knew what an exciting bird they were – I also knew how difficult they are to spot.

It has to be dusk to see them – almost dark. The birds roost all day in a quiet tree, completely camouflaged against a tree’s branch or bark. So we waited until after half nine before we left the Stockhill Forestry car park and walked gingerly over the rough terrain of Priddy Mineries where some lone pines stand amidst rough heath and grassland. We stood still and waited. An obliging tree pipit sang its bed-time song to keep us company as we waited for night to fall.

Nothing much happened for half an hour aside from us both getting frozen cold and eaten alive by midges that were as fierce as those in the Western Highlands. An inquisitive Roe buck looked on from a distance and barked in the encroaching gloom.

Then it came.

The first ‘churring’ began a short distance off from the direction of a large hawthorn tree.

‘Churring’ is one of nature’s great sounds.

The male nightjar’s call to attract its mate is almost mechanical in sound, like a buzzing radio frequency, or a stream of computer-generated sounds that have been analysed to comprise of up to 1900 notes per minute. Spooky? Supernatural? or 'Alien', as my 10 year old Linsey suggested when she heard a recording. I would describe it as magical.


We moved through the moor to try and hear other birds. Past the hill tarn, which had night-time mist filtering through its reeds, just to add a little more atmosphere – a howling wolf in the distance would have just topped things off nicely, but we were happy with at least two more ‘churring’ nightjars.

What a treat; what a performance.

It was now almost completely dark and we were both frozen stiff and eaten alive. I was wondering who would want to quit first, then, from out of nowhere a long-winged silhouetted bird slowly flapped, or I would like to think 'danced' by in the last glimmer of light.

My first British nightjar – simply wonderful.

Graeme Mitchell